The Red Deer Rebels headed into the Christmas break on a merry note, having experienced very few down days in their previous 30.
Granted, there was that 6-1 pasting they absorbed from the visiting Kelowna Rockets last Saturday. In addition, the 5-4 overtime setback Dec. 8 in Brandon snapped a nine-game winning streak and the 2-1 loss to the Calgary Hitmen four days later at the Centrium was somewhat of a downer, considering the Rebels were the better club for most of the evening.
But since Brent Sutter replaced Jesse Wallin behind the Red Deer bench in mid-November, it’s otherwise been one long version of Happy Days.
“I don’t get caught up in that part,” insisted Sutter, in terms of his own impact since taking on the dual role as GM/head coach. “There’s good things that Jesse did with this team, too, and yet we needed to create more offence and we are scoring more goals.”
The Rebels, clearly, are playing with an air of confidence not seen since last season, when Wallin had the club off to a sizzling 14-4 start, then watched in horror as player after player after player, ad nauseam, entered the infirmary. The injuries were both physically and mentally crippling and ruined what could have been a promising season.
Through the six preseason games of September and for large chunks of the current regular season, it became apparent that the hangover of the unfortunate 2011-12 campaign was still lingering. Sutter, having grown weary of waiting for a turn-around, decided it was time for a change.
The club responded in a big way, but the real test lies ahead. The dreariest winter months are just around the corner, the months in which the true contenders emerge.
“Our record in our last 14 games is 11-2-1, but we know the push comes after Christmas,” said Sutter.
“That’s when your team needs to be better, that’s when you know all of the other teams in the league are going to get better. That’s just part of the development process with young men, you expect all players to get better.
“So we have to come back after Christmas well prepared and we have to make sure that we continue to get our game to the level where we want it to be and make sure our consistency is where we want it to be too.”
The Rebels are currently fourth in the Eastern Conference, six points up on Saskatoon and Lethbridge. Edmonton, Calgary and Prince Albert occupy the top three spots and it might be a stretch to suggest Sutter’s crew can continue to climb the ladder, although Red Deer is just two points back of the Raiders.
A fourth-place finish and home-ice advantage in the opening round of the playoffs would likely be acceptable, but then again, that won’t be the focus of the coaching staff. A consistent second-half thrust will ultimately lead to positive results and will be shown in the standings come mid-March.
“If we’re going to be a team that’s going to finish where we want to finish, we’ll need every player to be good for us,” said Sutter. “That just comes down to accountability and responsibility and players and everyone else understanding that you take it a day at a time. The goal will be to get better every day and continue to push to be the best we can be.”
The Rebels will continue to progress through the latter half of the season if (1) Mathew Dumba reverts back to his form of 2011-12, (2) Patrik Bartosak picks up where he off after leaving for the world junior championship and (3) they maintain their balanced scoring attack.
There are other factors, of course, including Sutter’s state of mind approaching the Jan. 10 trade deadline.
The GM/coach will have to decide if he’s a seller or a buyer, but then again he might be satisfied with his current roster, which incidentally will include new forward Dominik Volek who’s expected to easily slide into a top-six role.
On another note, Sutter will meet with Wallin after the Christmas break regarding the possibility of the former bench boss remaining with the organization in some capacity.
Just notes: If the Kootenay Ice harboured any concerns regarding Jordan Steenbergen’s ability to step into an everyday role next season, they had to be erased during Tuesday’s 5-1 loss to the Rebels at the Centrium. The 16-year-old Sylvan Lake native looked right at home on the Ice blueline in his WHL regular-season debut. The six-foot, 180-pound defenceman is currently with the midget AAA Red Deer Optimist Rebels Chiefs and will almost certainly be a future fixture on Kootenay’s back end . . . The Swift Current Broncos acquired local defenceman Reid Fritzke from the Seattle Thunderbirds earlier this week in exchange for a conditional WHL bantam draft pick. Fritzke, a 16-year-old who was selected by the T-Birds in the eighth round of the 2011 bantam draft, is currently playing with the midget AAA Swift Current Legionnaires . . . Alessio Bertaggia is in his final season with the Brandon Wheat Kings. The 19-year-old Swiss sniper has signed a contract with EV Zug of Switzerland’s top professional league for the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons. Bertaggia will play for Switzerland in the upcoming world junior championship.